SEC Football: Teams Facing Biggest Challenges in 2014 Spring Practice
The 2014 season is built brick by brick, and some of those bricks are being laid this spring, as several SEC programs look to rebuild in the hopes of making it all the way to the Georgia Dome in early December to play for the SEC title.
Some position battles are more likely to be won and lost during fall camp, but players start jockeying for position now.
Which teams in the SEC have the biggest challenges facing them this spring? Our top five are in this slideshow.
5. Alabama Crimson Tide
All eyes will be on the quarterback battle taking place in Tuscaloosa this spring. While the battle among Blake Sims, Alec Morris, Parker McLeod, Cooper Bateman and David Cornwell is intriguing, it's only the semifinals. The winner will battle Florida State transfer Jacob Coker this spring, after Coker finishes up his degree in Tallahassee and transfers to T-town.
But there are still questions facing head coach Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide, most notably in the secondary. Starting cornerback Deion Belue and safeties Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Vinnie Sunseri are gone. While the secondary looked great on paper last season, giving up just 180.3 yards per game through the air, it was picked on by teams with dynamic passing attacks and never really settled down after Sunseri's season ended in October.
Who's going to step up at corner? Is linebacker Trey DePriest ready to step in for reigning SEC co-defensive player of the year C.J. Mosley as the quarterback of the defense? Can T.J. Yeldon solve his fumbling issues, or will Derrick Henry unseat the rising junior at running back?
These are all questions that will have answers by the end of spring. At least, they should.
4. Georgia Bulldogs
The door is wide open in the SEC East, and Georgia is in good position to waltz on through.
Head coach Mark Richt returns a loaded offense that rising senior Hutson Mason needs to become accustomed to this spring. In his first year as a starter, Mason is comfortable with the offense, its pieces and what offensive coordinator Mike Bobo wants to do. As long as he becomes comfortable this spring, the Bulldog offense won't miss a beat without recently departed quarterback Aaron Murray.
On defense, that may be a different story.
Georgia has talent and plenty of returning starters—nine, in fact—to be successful on defense. But those players must adjust to new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt. The good news is that Pruitt is a coach and a teacher, the latter of which was a trait former defensive coordinator Todd Grantham lacked.
Linebackers Ramik Wilson and Jordan Jenkins provide a solid foundation, and sophomore safety Tray Matthews could become a superstar now that he'll have a full offseason under his belt.
Georgia must get settled this spring on defense, which would allow fall camp to be all about fine-tuning.
3. LSU Tigers
LSU doesn't rebuild, it reloads—and that process starts now.
Curious eyes will be on the quarterback battle, where sophomore Anthony Jennings and freshmen Hayden Rettig and Brandon Harris will battle for the top spot on the depth chart this spring. Jennings and Harris bring dual-threat capabilities to the table, but Rettig can sling it.
The quarterback battle will be as much about offensive coordinator Cam Cameron as it is the quarterbacks. How will Cameron adjust his scheme to dual-threat quarterbacks? Is he more comfortable with Rettig? Those questions needs to be answered this spring.
All three quarterbacks need to find wide receivers to connect with this spring before star prospect Malachi Dupre arrives this summer, because it will help each of them win the job and help the wide receiver corps progress.
Defensively, the Tigers have to find defensive tackles up front to replace Ego Ferguson and Anthony Johnson, and now's as good of a time to do it as any. Defensive coordinator John Chavis' defense thrives when two monsters in the middle eat up blocks, and he'll need to find those monsters sooner rather than later.
2. Texas A&M Aggies
The race to replace quarterback Johnny Manziel is on, as veteran Matt Joeckel, sophomore Kenny Hill and freshman Kyle Allen are all in camp this spring looking to replace the Aggies legend.
All three have desirable attributes that head coach Kevin Sumlin can build upon. Joeckel, a senior, started for Manziel in the opener versus Rice last season while Manziel served his half-game suspension; Hill has the dual-threat capabilities that can keep the offense similar to the one Manziel succeeded with; and Allen is the gunslinger with the big arm, similar to former Houston quarterback and Sumlin protege Case Keenum.
But it isn't just about the quarterback.
In College Station, the most critical question is whether or not the Aggies can field a competitive—or even functional—defense.
The dismissal of former hot shot safety recruit Kameron Miles won't help, but he was just a small piece to a very large—and clearly complicated—puzzle for defensive coordinator Mark Snyder. The Aggies need pressure up front and consistency from the linebackers and secondary, all of which were more myth than reality in 2013.
Defense doesn't win championships anymore, "just enough" defense does. That's a moving target for each team depending on what type of offense they employ. With a brilliant offensive mind like Sumlin at the helm, finding "just enough" defense should be overly challenging. It was while Manziel was there, and it will be even more difficult now that he's gone.
1. Florida Gators
To say this is a big spring in Gainesville would be a massive understatement. It's huge.
Coming off of a 4-8 season, head coach Will Muschamp is on the hottest seat in the SEC. But he took a huge step this offseason when he scrapped the old-school philosophy and brought in offensive coordinator Kurt Roper and his hurry-up system to jump-start what has been a wildly lethargic offense.
Roper needs to find pieces that will help jump-start that offense this spring, because fall camp is too late. Will quarterback Jeff Driskel rebound from a leg injury that ended his season in September and adapt to an offense that should play into his dual-threat capabilities? Will a playmaker at wide receiver finally emerge? Can the Gators build offensive line depth?
These are questions that need to have answers by the end of spring practice; otherwise, Muschamp and his staff may be employed elsewhere this time next year.